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Militant groups unite against israel { April 2 2004 }

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A Growing Unity Against Israel
Palestinian Militant Groups, Once Rivals, Forge Alliances

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page A01

JERUSALEM -- Three years ago, members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement created the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to compete with Hamas -- in effect, to see which organization's armed wing could send the most suicide bombers against Israel and win the most support among Palestinians.

Today the former rivals have forged alliances, a shift that is complicating Israeli efforts to thwart major attacks and blurring the ideological lines between nationalist and religious factions, according to Palestinian militants, analysts and senior Israeli military officials.

In addition to al-Aqsa and Hamas -- formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement -- other militant groups have also participated in collaborative efforts, most notably Islamic Jihad. The growing trend toward cooperation emerged just over a year ago, Palestinian fighters and Israeli generals say, in a bid to combat the increasing success of Israeli forces in targeting, killing or capturing militant leaders and their operatives.

"Since they're having problems carrying out terror operations, they're cooperating" with one another, Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the Israeli military chief of operations, said in an interview at his Tel Aviv office. "One organization has the money; another has the guy that knows the area -- the best guide; the third has the best suicide bomber."

"We found we do best when we work together," said a street leader of the al-Aqsa group in the Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza City. The 27-year-old shop owner spoke on condition that he be identified by only his last name, Abu Mishal, because he feared being targeted by Israeli forces.

In a strike that several Israeli officials described as stunning in its audacity and planning, Hamas, al-Aqsa and Islamic Jihad attacked an Israeli military checkpoint on March 6 at the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel using jeeps disguised to look like Israeli military vehicles. Two Palestinian policemen, two al-Aqsa gunmen and one each from Hamas and Islamic Jihad were killed in the incident.

"This operation is part of the continuing joint operations," the three groups said in a combined communique posted on the Hamas Web site soon after the attack. "It is emphasizing the path of resistance and unity."

On March 14, Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades asserted responsibility for the double suicide bombing that killed the two attackers and 10 Israelis at the port of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza. In a mutual communique, the two groups stressed that "joint, qualitative operations" with different factions would be the hallmark of future attacks.

Evolving Cooperation

Relations among Hamas, al-Aqsa and Islamic Jihad have become a matter of particular importance since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested that Israel might withdraw Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Though plans for such a move are still being debated, an Israeli pullout presumably would leave Gaza under the control of the Palestinian Authority, which is led by Arafat and dominated by his Fatah movement. But Hamas is vastly more popular, and Israelis and Palestinians have expressed fears that any power struggle could be violent and ultimately disastrous. In recent weeks, clashes have erupted in the Gaza Strip between Hamas militants and members of Arafat's Palestinian security forces, even as Hamas has coordinated attacks against Israeli targets with al-Aqsa.

In the aftermath of Israel's assassination of Hamas's spiritual leader and founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, last month, the Palestinian factions took immediate steps that suggested they were cooperating rather than jockeying for positions of power. Hours after Yassin was killed, most of the organizations issued statements urging all groups to coordinate in attacks against Israel.

Those messages reflected how far the Palestinian groups have moved toward working together, a process that has evolved in the past year from random cooperation among members of local cells into more organized militant operations against Israel.

In 2002, responsibility for a handful of attacks was asserted by more than one group, but Israeli military officials said they believed most of those claims represented competing bids for publicity rather than actual joint operations. In 2003, the groups said they coordinated seven major attacks and a half-dozen smaller ones.

Since the start of this year, militant groups have asserted joint responsibility for three of the eight major attacks conducted against Israelis. Though the number of attacks is lower in comparison to previous years, Israeli military officials said the greater proportion of combined operations is significant and ominous.

"It's on a deep level now," said a senior Israeli military intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's deep, and it's going to be deeper in the future."

The first concrete confirmation of joint operations by militant groups came in a March 17, 2003, communique posted on the Hamas Web site. Hamas and a group comprising castoffs from other militant organizations in Gaza called the Popular Resistance Committees issued a combined statement asserting responsibility for a rocket-propelled grenade attack on an Israeli checkpoint in the Gaza Strip in which no deaths were reported. That was followed on April 30 by a joint claim of responsibility by Hamas and al-Aqsa for a suicide bombing at Mike's Place, a beachfront pub in Tel Aviv, that killed three Israeli residents.

A Deliberate Policy

A declaration issued in October by Hamas and Islamic Jihad indicated that cooperation had become a policy of the militant groups, rather than an occasional practice. The two groups said they would "intensify the bilateral coordination and activate the relationship between the joint committees of the two movements both inside and outside Palestine and broaden the scope of consultation and coordination with all the factions and Palestinian forces."

The agreement was signed by Khaled Meshal, who last week was named the "first head" and world leader of Hamas after Yassin's slaying, and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the general secretary of Islamic Jihad, both of whom are based in Damascus, Syria. Four days later, on Oct. 24, the organizations conducted a joint raid on an Israeli army base in the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, killing three soldiers who had been asleep in their barracks.

"Hamas now is in the position to be the uniting factor for all the militant groups," said Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and human rights activist in Gaza City who closely tracks political and military trends among the organizations.

The Israeli intelligence officer said the organizations -- each with different ideological origins -- have joined forces because "they need each other. It's more difficult to carry out an attack now. This enables them to carry it out in spite of the difficulties."

About 950 Israeli citizens or residents and approximately 2,800 Palestinians have been killed in the current Palestinian intifada, an uprising that began in September 2000.

The number of suicide bombings against Israelis fell to 23 in 2003 compared with 42 in 2002, the most violent year of the intifada, according to Israeli Foreign Ministry statistics. In the first three months of this year, Palestinians have carried out five suicide bombings -- about the same pace as last year. The total number of Israelis killed in all types of attacks also fell, from 451 in 2002 to 213 last year, the figures show.

Israeli officials attributed the declines to aggressive efforts by their security services to arrest, kill or intercept militants and bombers, to better intelligence collected by undercover operatives and Palestinian informants, and to the construction of a massive barrier through the West Bank that has made it more difficult for assailants to enter Israel. The Israeli military reported that it thwarted 209 would-be suicide bombers last year, compared with 171 in 2002.

"Carrying out actions has become more complex," the Israeli intelligence officer said. "It takes more time to organize and coordinate."

Palestinian analysts say cooperation among militant groups also is serving to radicalize the organizations and to blur their ideological differences.

Hamas, whose political agenda is rooted in Islam, has launched attacks inside Israel since the start of the current uprising. Arafat's essentially secular, nationalist Fatah movement initially targeted only Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

The tactics reflected one of the main ideological differences between the two groups: Fatah advocated a two-state solution that would remove Israeli settlements and soldiers from the Palestinian territories as they were designated after the 1967 Middle East war, while Hamas opposed the very existence of the state of Israel.

The two movements have long been fierce rivals for support among Palestinians, and as the conflict with Israel intensified, Arafat supporters became concerned that Hamas was gaining popularity because it was perceived as exacting tougher retribution.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were created loosely as the armed wing of Fatah. Unlike Hamas, which is highly centralized and organized, al-Aqsa is composed of individualized groups, often with differing agendas and no central structure.

A senior al-Aqsa leader in the Balata refugee camp adjacent to the West Bank city of Nablus said of the Brigades' relationship with Arafat: "We listen to him on some things, we don't listen on others." The leader asked that he not be identified because he is one of Israel's most wanted targets.

Abu Mishal, the al-Aqsa leader in the Jabaliya camp in Gaza, was even more dismissive, saying many militants considered Arafat and the Palestinian Authority corrupt. He said his al-Aqsa cell has been spurred to conduct joint operations with Hamas for financial as well as ideological reasons.

Abu Mishal said Palestinian security agencies "want al-Aqsa to work when they say to and not work at other times, according to the political situation, and they enforce it by stopping the flow of money to us."

"When they cut it, al-Aqsa can't do anything," he continued. "We feel a military solution is the answer to our problems with Israel, so we have increased our coordination with Hamas. We share our views with each other."

Imad Falouji, a former top Hamas activist who broke away from the organization in the mid-1990s and is now an independent member of the Palestinian legislature, said cooperation among the three main groups is temporary, a view shared by many analysts and Israeli intelligence officials.

"When there are problems and pressures, you can see all the parties working together," Falouji said. "It does not mean there are no differences between them. It's a message to Israel that you can't break us."

Researcher Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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